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Joshua Nichols

Marriage Counselor, Family Counselor, Sex Addictions Therapist

Healing Old Wounds: Not Your Kids' Job

Wed, 05/01/2013 - 22:55 -- josh

“My dad says that childhood is the happiest time of my life. But, I think he’s wrong. I think my mom’s right. She says that childhood is what you spend the rest of your life trying to overcome.” (Hope Floats, 1998).

For some of you, this quote from the movie Hope Floats doesn’t ring true for you at all; but, for others, it is spot on.  Some of you have tons of positive memories when you reflect on your childhood; but, for others, not so much.  Although I believe that most parents truly are doing the best they can, some parents seem to have a better grasp on childrearing than others.  For whatever reasons, many children will launch into adulthood with festering emotional wounds left by the actions or inactions of their parents. These young adults will soon enter into relationships themselves and have children of their own, all the while, unbeknownst to them, carrying with them their childhood baggage.

“Don’t expect your children to make up for where your parents fell short.”

How did you primarily feel as a child?  Did you feel loved?  Did you feel good enough?  Did you feel noticed or wanted?  If reflecting on your childhood generates negative feelings within you, there is a possibility you haven’t effectively healed from your emotional wounds.  As parents, we need to understand that our children aren’t supposed to be the antibiotic for our festering wounds.  

Allow me to illustrate my point.  Jane grew up in a home where the general consensus was that children are to be seen and not heard.  She was in constant competition with her two older brothers for the attention of her mother and the acceptance of her father.  As an adult, Jane has exclaimed that she knew her parents loved her, but it often didn’t feel that way.  She stated that maybe if she were a better daughter, then her parents would have loved her more.  Despite her emotionally difficult environment as a child, Jane grew up, got married, and had two children of her own.  Jane has found parenting to be quite difficult on an emotional level. Jane stated when her kids don’t cooperate or obey her, she takes it personal and often finds herself screaming, cussing, and crying, sometimes all at the same time.    Jane stated that she wonders what she is doing wrong and if she isn’t cut out for this “parenthood gig.”  In a nutshell, Jane is feeling like she is not a “good enough” parent, a feeling all too familiar to her. 

Jane was left emotionally wounded by her parents and she never effectively healed from those wounds.  Jane, therefore, should be very careful in her parenting endeavors to not expect her children to make up for where her parents fell short.  In other words, it is not her kids’ job to make her happy or make her feel like a good parent.  It is, however, their job to challenge her.  If Jane expects her children to tell her she is a good parent (via good behavior), then, her children will get the message that behaving appropriately is for their mother’s own emotional well-being, not the other way around, as it should be. Because, by design, children aren’t supposed to fix the emotional wounds of their parents, kids put in this position are being set up for failure.  Jane is likely, then, to continue the cycle of emotional wounding by passing down those wounds to her children, leaving them with a bad case of the “not good enoughs.” If Jane wants to break the cycle, then she must come to a better understanding of her wounds so that she can apply the proper medication.  Jane will then be better equipped to handle normative difficult circumstances in childrearing without taking it as a personal attack on her. 

Allow me to illustrate from a recent episode with my 3 yr old.  I had told my 3 yr old to do something the other day and he refused.  I gave him the choice of obeying me, which would result in him continuing to watch TV, or not obeying me, which would result in him going to his room.  He chose to not obey.  So, I calmly picked him up and he immediately started crying and kicking is feet.  I put him in my arms and headed to his room.  As he was saying, “No, Daddy!” he hit me on the back with the hand that was holding on to my shoulder.  I just firmly said, “Do not hit,” and continued to carry him in his room.  After discussing with him why his bad choices led to bad consequences, he decided to make the right choice and obey daddy, which ultimately resulted in him finishing a fantastic episode of Blue’s Clues.  But before he left his room, I told him he needed to apologize for hitting me.  He apologized with tears in eyes and gave me a big hug, then proceeded to the living room.

As I was discussing this incident with my wife, I couldn’t help but to reflect on the original quote that inspired this article – Don’t expect your children to make up for where you parents fell short.  I explained to her that if I grew up in a home where I felt constantly mistreated, I may have taken that swat on the back a lot more personal than I did.  If that were the case, that tiny swat on the back may have generated a variety of emotional responses in me from simply being in a bad mood for a lengthy period of time to physically acting out in my anger.  If that were my typical reaction to childhood misbehavior, then my kids would ultimately get the message that dad can’t handle it.  Dad can’t handle normal childhood emotion and behavior, so we need to make sure we feel and behave a certain way, not for our own benefit, but for his.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children to make decisions based on FEAR of how others will or won’t respond, even if that person is me.

I think my good friend, Jennifer Escobar, said it best, “Kids should not have to or be born with the ‘job’ to fix what is broken or lacking in [their parent’s] life!”

I know this might be a difficult concept to grasp; thus, your questions and thoughts are always welcomed.  I will do my best to follow up with your responses in a timely fashion.  If you are a parent with a difficult past, please do not hesitate to contact me or another mental professional to inquire about attaining the emotional healing you long for.  Your kids deserve it; your spouse deserves it; your friends deserve it; but, more importantly, you deserve it! 


Submitted by Jack (not verified) on

 if you don't instill fear in a child as  a consequence  or retribution  for an bad act or decision how on earth can you convey the concept at the appropriate time as sin and instill the fear of God down the road as we all must have?  biblically speaking'

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Submitted by josh on

I think fearing me and fearing God are two different things.  However, I think it is okay for a child to fear the consequences (logical and natural) of bad decisions.  The key phrase is "fear the consequence" not "be afraid of the parent because the parent can't refrain from being emotionally reactive."  Emotion should never be used as a discpline tool in parenting. It is okay for the parent to experience and it is okay for the children to see, but never okay to be used as a discipline measure.  When a parent falls prey to this (disclaimer: I think we all do from time to time), we may get compliance in the moment, but there are costs - (1) It always damages the parent-child relationship, even just a little, (2) although the child might demonstrate respect, they typically lose the feeling of respect for the parent because the parent can't "keep it together" so to speak, (3) the child loses a sense of emotional safety because if the parent can't handle their own emotion, how can they expect their parents to handle theirs?, and (4) the child gets the message that good behavior is for the emotional benefit of the parent, not the well-being of the child (relying a child to behave so "I don't get upset" is a load of pressure).  Now, that said, this doesn't mean a parent can't be firm or "stern" as we call it in our family out of respect for self and one's own value system, but it should be a conscious decision, not an emotional reaction. 

Submitted by Jack (not verified) on

 and the way this relates is... how can a young child know the reasons behind a parent's discipline and how can a parent discern from an  adequate decision and an aborition of his / her history?

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Submitted by josh on

To answer your first question.  We discpline when certain behaviors don't fit within our value system or principles.  Young children will not understand this at first.  All they know initially is that doing x equals y.  However, parents can start at a young age helping their children understand better by having little conversations with them after they experience a negative consequence for a bad decision.  Parents can say things like "It is important to ________________ because _____________" or "God teaches us to ____________ because ____________."  Then don't be afraid to ask a child how they feel about it. These conversations are what John Gottman calls "opportunities for intimacy" which is extremely important in building a lasting healthy parent-child relationship.  If we get caught up in our own emotion, we often miss these opportunities.  So parents have to be experts in learning to put their emotions aside when handling their children's behavior.  I call this skill "shelving your emotion."  I'm not saying a child should never see their parents' emotions, but at times, parents need to, at will, shelve their emotions and get into the world of their children.


To answer your second question: The more self-aware we, parents, become, the better off we are. It makes us better parents, better spouses, better employees, etc.   Many parents take their kids' negative emotion and/or behavior very personal, as if their children are "attacking me" or "intending to make my life miserable."  When parents find themselves asking these questions, or they find themselves in certain situations being emotionally reactive instead of making conscious decisions, they need to ask themselves the question of "Why?"  How come I take it so personal?  How come every time little Johnny gets distracted (as most kids do) when I am talking to him does it bother me so much?  Where does that come from?"  You may discover it is simply because of violation of a principle or value you carry, or you may discover some deep seeded reasons like, "My parents didn't pay much attention to me growing up" "I felt unloved, unwanted, and disrespected by my parents, teachers, and peers in my childhood, not to mention the traumatic episode of my spouse cheating on my in my early adult years."  The things we take personal aren't just pulled out of thin air, they come from some where, some experience.  When we understand them we can do a better job of discerning why we do what we do as parents.  Hope this helps. 

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